by Caitlin McGregor
If the women I aspired to be when I was growing up had anything in common, it was that they were all ‘fiercely independent’. I use quotation marks because this is a quote, even if not by anyone in particular. It just gets said a lot – used to describe a particular kind of person, usually a particular kind of woman. My mother, for example, is ‘fiercely independent’. So are a couple of my aunts; so is the chook breeder who lives round the corner from me; so are several women with whom I’ve had mentor-like relationships at various stages of my life. I am drawn to women like these, and it matters – sometimes against my will and better judgement – very deeply to me that they respect me, that they see me as an equal. That they see me as fiercely independent, too.
This aspirational impulse – towards not needing dependence, whether that’s financial help, emotional help, practical help, you name it really – became a core part of the ‘feminism’ I operated from as a teenager and in my early twenties. And it made me very sick.
Importantly, though: this is not an ‘it’s okay to ask for help!’ essay. Those kinds of takes on mental health and (in)dependence irritate me, because although they do hold some value, I also think they oversimplify complicated structural issues and misplace the onus of care. They ignore the fact that sometimes you ask for help and you don’t get it; sometimes you ask for help and get something worse than no help at all; and sometimes there are endless barriers to both asking for and receiving help. In these circumstances, telling people it’s okay to ask for help is, ironically, extremely unhelpful. I am more interested in a complete shift away from valorising independence in the first place. I’m interested in a feminist politics of interdependence, one which prioritises care at every stage and level of life.
Human babies are utterly dependent. Ridiculously so, I’ve always thought. It takes months, for example, for their neck muscles to be able to support the weight of their own heads. I held my friend’s eleven-day-old baby the other day, and as she passed him to me we did that familiar, clumsy here-you-hold-the-baby dance: me snaking my arm between her inner elbow and his neck, both of us momentarily supporting his head before she carefully extricated her arms and left me holding his little body on my own. I was reminded of my own baby’s first months, of losing count of how many times I’d wearily handed him to someone and said gently, almost involuntarily: ‘Watch his neck.’
In their recently published Care Manifesto (Verso 2020), Chatzidakis et al – aka ‘The Care Collective’ – link the expansion of the post-WWII welfare state in the UK to the work of popular British psychoanalyst DW Winnicott:
‘In popular radio broadcasts […] Winnicott highlighted the fact of human dependency, stressing the essential importance of ‘holding environments’ for the child, which fed into ideas about the significance of caring welfare states through support for mothers and the provision of decent homes and welfare services.’
Winnicott’s work emphasises the intimacy and vulnerability, the radical kind of interdependence, that exists between a mother and their child. It was from observing mothers and their children interacting with one another in his psychoanalysis sessions that Winnicott developed the concept of ‘potential space’ – a realm which is neither an individual’s internal world nor the external objective world, but somewhere in between. ‘Potential space’ springs from interdependence, and belongs to intimacy, care, and the kind of creativity that ‘belongs to being alive’.
The kind of creativity that belongs to being alive isn’t always productive in the sense of putting money in anyone’s bank, though, so here I am again in the office of my ParentsNext ‘provider’, feeling particularly prickly because this morning Natalie Barr referred to Newstart recipients as ‘dole bludgers’ on Sunrise and I’ve had a particularly taxing week working three jobs, two if you’re rude enough not to count parenting, and today Kirsty has a new app for me to download! It’s called JobActive and it’s going to give me a little bit of extra support! I say no, it isn’t, I already have two jobs and this app is just another way of pushing single parents into the workforce, isn’t it, Kirsty. I say: do I have to download it; she says: yes it’s not optional and if I don’t download it my payments will stop, and so I download it in front of her and the home screen says ‘COMPLIANCE’ in big red letters. I laugh. She becomes uncomfortable and asks: is everything okay? Maybe we should book our next appointment in for six months down the track instead of three?
Neoliberalism does not value care. This is not an accident or unfortunate collateral damage. ‘Neoliberalism,’ as The Care Collective put it, ‘is careless by design.’ Good care is patient, slow, complex, and radically inefficient. Today’s ‘welfare state’ is designed to push people out, off welfare support and into paid work as soon as possible, because the neoliberal agenda does not have space to support patient, slow, complex, or inefficient work. ‘A caring state,’ declares The Care Manifesto, ‘will always begin by valuing caretaking over profit-making, and champion caretaking as a highly valued end in itself.’
I try to imagine what such a state would actually look and feel like, and come to the conclusion that I need to work on my imagination.
For many people, proposing a politics of interdependence will be akin to stating the bleeding obvious. Not everyone has been raised in a culture or a community that equates strength with independence, so not everyone has to learn how to embrace interdependence as though they’re starting from scratch. I’m not saying anything new here – but perhaps that’s half the point. I’ve been thinking a lot about this thought from Cher Tan: ‘I’m not trying to be ‘the first’ to create something because that’s ahistorical; the obsession with the ‘lone genius’ is ahistorical.’ I’ve been thinking about how some people have their first baby and then start saying ‘No one ever tells you about X!’ and ‘Nobody ever talks about Y!’ as though they are the first person who has ever had an episiotomy and been transparent enough to speak about it afterwards, but nah: these things have been spoken about since forever. It’s just that often, we only start paying attention to topics of discussion when they start affecting us very directly.
This has been a theme that’s emerged from the pandemic, too: society learning, en masse, of things that many communities have already known – and sometimes have had no choice but to know – for a very long time. Queenie Bon Bon writes about this really beautifully in their piece for FWF, ‘Relearning: Sex Work During COVID-19’, reflecting on how, this year, we have had to be retaught, as a society, how to properly wash our hands:
‘This seemed like new information to many who were re-navigating the interconnected world we exist in. […] A foundational learning is this: care is messy. So many of the COVID-19 outbreak sites have been sites of care. I did not have to learn to understand that the trace selves of others stick; they cling to us. I did not have to relearn that I should rub my hands together, using one hand to rub the back of the other hand and clean between the fingers.’
They point to the vital role of sex workers in the response to the HIV pandemic: ‘We were acknowledged in that moment as the experts; as key populations that held a key to the response.’
The populations that have held key knowledges in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have also been communities built around care. This year, many emergent understandings have been changes that activists – particularly those from disabled and parenting/carer communities – have spent decades advocating for. These include more flexible working conditions, more inclusive approaches to event accessibility, the widespread availability of telehealth appointments, and an increase in access to subsidised mental health care. Many people with chronic illness have intimate understandings of what it takes to live a life that’s homebound, slower, or less ‘productive’ than what capitalism has normalised; Millie Baylis’ evergreen essay ‘How To Rest’, published in May 2019, is an outstanding example of this kind of knowledge preceding COVID-19.
In a year with Black Lives Matter protests taking place across the globe in response to the murder of George Floyd and ongoing racist police brutality – as well as in so-called Australia, in protest against Aboriginal deaths in custody – we have seen the politics of prison abolition subsequently enter mainstream discourse. This is not incidental: the longstanding work of Bla(c)k activists have provided the blueprint for those who are learning for the first time to say and believe ACAB: that racist, colonial, and neoliberal institutions such as the police force and the prison system aren’t the kinds of structures we want our communities built upon.
Of the unprecedented level of uproar in response to George Floyd’s death, Nayuka Gorrie writes: ‘We know that Black people being killed by police is commonplace, so why was this time any different? Perhaps, it’s because COVID-19 has induced a certain stillness, a certain togetherness, as we endure this time of upheaval. Perhaps it’s given us focus, time to reflect.’ Perhaps one thing we can learn from this year is who to read and where to listen, and to think deeply about which communities hold the knowledge and expertise that will be most valuable, if we are to build a collective future built on foundations of real care.
Hands-on care can be messy in a physical way, as Queenie Bon Bon points out; but all types of care have their mess. ‘Compared with similar complex, emotive terms such as courage, love or anger,’ writes The Care Collective, ‘care is rarely given due respect or attention.’ Representations of caring, in large part due to care’s historical and pervasive association with women, often depicts it as a ‘feminine’ trait or activity: as soft, gentle, simple, and devoid of conflict.
In reality care is none of these things, and is in fact frequently the opposite – caring can be uncomfortable, confronting, and exhausting. Care is, necessarily, riddled with ambivalences. Establishing a care-centred way of living – care-centred communities, a caring economy, caring kinships and a caring state – requires us to be able to sit with and work through conflict, discomfort and mess. Based on Winnicott’s concept of ‘creative apperception’ – which he suggests takes place between a mother and infant, or between an individual and their environment – to care is to embark on a process that is built on a radical kind of dependence. This strikes me as being a good place to start thinking about how best to care for each other. It strikes me as being a good place to start working on my imagination.
Caitlin McGregor is a writer, editor and critic. Her work has been published in a range of magazines and literary journals, including Overland, Meanjin, Going Down Swinging, The Big Issue, Voiceworks and Australian Book Review. In 2019, she was a writer-in-residence at the Melbourne Recital Centre, and was the recipient of the Kat Muscat Highly Commended Award. She lives and works on the land of the Dja Dja Wurrung people, to whom she pays her deepest respects. @caitlinmcgregor